Bibb County Superior Court Judge Howard Simms will preside over Stephen McDaniel’s upcoming murder trial.
Judge S. Phillip Brown had been handling the high-profile case, but he announced Tuesday that he will retire at year’s end.
Simms’ assignment to the case was noted in a Wednesday court filing.
Jury selection in McDaniel’s trial is set to begin Jan. 6, but that could be pushed back because of the judge change.
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Brown had said Tuesday that he would preside over pretrial motions hearings in the case scheduled for next week, but word Wednesday was that those proceedings will be postponed and heard by Simms.
McDaniel, 28, is accused in the June 2011 dismemberment slaying of 27-year-old Lauren Giddings, his Mercer University law school classmate and next-door neighbor.
Brown’s departure comes 20 months after McDaniel’s defense team all but accused prosecutors of “judge shopping” or trying to get the case taken away from Brown.
Prosecutors were then seeking the death penalty for McDaniel. They have since taken capital punishment off the table as a possible sentence if the Lilburn native is convicted.
In March 2012, prosecutors raised questions about whether the proper order of capital-case assignment for judges had been followed. A south Georgia judge ruled that it had.
One of McDaniel’s attorneys, Franklin J. Hogue, spoke highly Wednesday of Brown and Simms, lawyers he has known for two decades. He described both men as “judges I believe will give a defendant a fair trial.”
Hogue said, “I’m pleased that Judge Simms has been assigned the case, ... even though I’m saddened Judge Brown is resigning.”
Floyd Buford, who has represented McDaniel since his arrest in the summer of 2011, less than two months after McDaniel graduated from law school, was “disappointed” to hear about Brown’s retirement.
Buford said Brown had “worked extremely hard” on the case.
“But I have utmost confidence in Judge Simms,” Buford said, “and I know that he will get up to speed quickly.”
He said he hadn’t spoken to McDaniel about Brown’s decision to retire.
Buford did meet with McDaniel last week at the Bibb jail, where McDaniel has awaited trial for 28 months -- through two district attorneys, a rescinded death penalty prosecution and now two judges.
“He’s an amazing and unique young man,” Buford said. “I’ve gotten to know him very well.”
Buford said his client was “upbeat” and “very confident the jury is going to acquit him.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.